I only knew what an “oligarch” is because of my political science degree. For folks who do not know, here’s the definition:
noun ol·i·garch \ˈä-lə-ˌgärk, ˈō-\
: a person who belongs to a small group of people who govern or control a country, business, etc.
Source: Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary
I remember learning about the different types of government in college and one of the students in class asked, “Where might one find an example of an oligarch?” The professor replied, “Eastern Europe, pretty much.” So, now you know.
Rise of an Oligarch is basically The Godfather set in Europe with a Jewish protagonist. The book starts with an assassination attempt on Mikhail Vorotavich, the boss of his crime syndicate, I mean, business group. The story is told in a series of flashbacks to Mikhail’s childhood and then the current investigation by his associates into the situation with the shooter. Mikhail grew up poor with no connections Through various illegal schemes and associations, he clawed his way to the top. Along the way, he makes a ton of enemies, any one of which could be responsible for the bullet in his skull.
I loved the childhood flashbacks. It reminded me of the film,The Godfather Part II which was my favorite of that trilogy: “I learned that the best way to fight violence was with violence. Eye for an eye beats turning the other cheek every time. Bullies bully easy targets, not those who fight back. Never again was I impressed by physical superiority after that.” pg 18, ebook
Mikhail’s childhood and knowledge of what it is to have nothing drives him to become one of the richest men in the world: “Poverty became our reality. No more ice cream, cinema or toys. My mother’s answer to anything I asked was, “We don’t have money for that, Mishenka,” as she tried to suppress her tears. The colour of my childhood turned grey- the grey buildings, the grey filthy snow after the first day it falls, and the grey, sullen face of my mother.” pgs 24-25 ebook
He also develops his philosophy for life: “I learned many lessons during my high-school days: the value of friendship, never snitching on your friends, the state is the enemy and manipulating it is a virtue not a sin, and if something is prohibited it means you just need to pay to make it allowed. But most importantly, and never forget it, the key to survival is to fly below the radar, unnoticed. Once noticed, you’re doomed.” pg 36 ebook
As much as I enjoyed the scheming and unique ways in which Mikhail bent the law, I gave Rise of an Oligarch only three stars because of the occasional (not constant) vulgarity which wasn’t necessary, because it became repetitive when the story focused on Mikhail’s actions rather than the relationships with his partners (which were discussed briefly but honestly felt tacked on to me rather than incorporated into the story), and because there wasn’t a single, strong female protagonist in the whole thing. There were opportunities for a female character (Mikhail’s mother, his wife, Masha) but the authors chose not to develop them.
Mikhail sees himself as the “best” of the bad men: “Many oligarchs hated the state. Their families lived in Monaco or Sardinia, their children were educated in London and their wealth was stashed in Switzerland. Ukraine was used only as a place where you make money and squeeze it of its last drop of juice… Was this line of thought a kind of self-loathing? Definitely. I hoped I was a bit different though.” pg 260 ebook. Which struck me as the kind of mental gymnastics that everyone goes through- we never see ourselves as the problem. Maybe that’s the problem?
If you enjoyed Rise of an Oligarch, you may want to pick up Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich or Amish Confidential by “Lebanon” Levi Stoltzfus. A big thank you to the authors of this book for a free digital copy for review purposes. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.
Thank you for reading!